The Science of Learning Blog

May 28, 2020

Slowing and Stopping the COVID Slide: Part 1

BY Martha Burns, PhD

Educators are concerned that the current restrictions on in-person instruction necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic will significantly decrease academic gains among a large swath of children in the United States. Given that current U.S. government data indicate only one-third of fourth-graders have the reading skills considered proficient, the "COVID slide" could result in a further decline in literacy skills, especially among our most vulnerable students. Why will the COVID slide occur and what can educators do to combat it?

A Summer Peek into Students’ Brains

The scientific explanation for why students regress during the summer months away from the classroom, typically called the "summer slide," hinges on neuroplasticity. Our brain is a use-it-or-lose it, activity-dependent, malleable organ. Neuroplasticity is a double-edged sword. On one hand, thanks to our brains being plastic, the potential for growth is incredible. Even those suffering from catastrophic brain damage can recover and thrive.

At the same time, because the brain is a soft and shifting organ, lessons learned will be lost without the proper, consistent support of neural pathways it has built, like an unused path that becomes so overgrown with weeds that it disappears in the woods. So, when students don’t read, write, study, or learn for an entire summer, their plastic brains adjust by letting go of some of what they learned in school.

The COVID slide will likely happen because of the nature of the brain. Thus, effective strategies to combat the COVID slide must be brain-based.

Four Brain-Based Strategies to Upend the COVID Slide

Dr. Stanislas Dehaene, a renowned brain scientist who authored The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics and Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, has recently published a new book providing helpful guidelines for enhancing learning inside and outside the classroom. In How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better than Any Machine...for Now, Dahaene provides brain-based, scientifically based approaches shown to increase learning outcomes in all students.

This blog post discusses four of the findings Dehaene emphasizes that can reduce or even reverse the COVID slide during periods of remote learning as well as classroom instruction. And, since many school districts currently use online technological educational programs to supplement direct instruction, I will also apply these research-based guidelines to technological resources.

Build attention as a gateway to learning. Dehaene emphasizes that attention is the gateway to learning. Nothing new can be learned if a student is not attending to the relevant content at hand. So, during home-based learning activities, adults working with a student should try to eliminate sources of distraction. Turn off the TV, clear the table, and calm the dog.

The adult should also draw attention to new, important information by emphasizing it and assuring the student “got it” by frequently asking them to repeat, discuss, or respond to questions about new or important content.

For students who struggle to follow instructions at home and/or in the classroom, research indicates that online technological activities and exercises designed by brain scientists to enhance a student’s ability to focus and sustain their attention are transferable to educational tasks.

Engage students. Related to and fostering attention is engagement. From this perspective, Dr. Dehaene emphasizes the importance of keeping children actively engaged in the learning process. He states that passive students have trouble learning. To increase a student’s engagement in learning, he suggests encouraging curiosity and asking the student to generate their own hypotheses. For example, a parent or teacher could frequently ask the student “why” questions such as “why do you think this is important?”

With respect to online technological academic exercises, school-based research in the U.S. has also shown that student engagement is critical as well. Rather than opting for electronic versions of online worksheets, educators may opt for dynamic technological learning materials that constantly adapt with more difficult or easier tasks based on a student’s individual progress. Such engaging technology has shown to result in significant improvements on standardized assessments. The hallmark of a well-designed technological program is when student engagement increases by maintaining a target “zone of proximal development.” This occurs when the program maintains student accuracy at an 80% level of correct responses with 20% of the items posing a challenge.

Reward progress. Dr. Dehaene discusses research indicating that reward circuits are known to drive constructive changes in the human brain that are essential for learning. Adults should reward a student’s effort, not just their achievement. Dr. Dehaene also clarifies how children’s and adolescents’ social brains respond to smiles and words of encouragement. In that regard, a student’s awareness of their own progress is also a powerful reward.

To be effective, online academic technology should also provide immediate reinforcement on every correct response with corrective feedback on error responses.

Encourage effort and productive struggle. Dr. Dehaene also emphasizes that successful learning cannot be effortless. He states that, for all of us, interesting learning experiences—whether in reading, math, and science, or non-academic exercises like athletics, artistic endeavors, and playing an instrument—require years of consistent and purposeful practice. The belief that learning is easy discourages students who struggle, leading them to think that “smart” equals “ease of learning.” Adults can provide iconic examples of the effort required to master any skill or content based on any student’s heroes, whether famous athletes, artists, or scholars.

Productive struggle is a term used widely in athletic training and mathematics but is now being applied more broadly to all areas of education. It refers to providing opportunities for educationally relevant, robust problem-solving as well as rigorous practice outside of the classroom. The value of productive struggle should be applied to the selection of online technological educational materials as well. When selecting adjunctive academic technology, one should ask: does the content allow for rigorous practice and some problem-solving?


Attention, engagement, reward, and effort are now seen as key components of successful learning. In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss other brain-based educational guidelines that can be applied to reduce or reverse the COVID slide: the value of setting clear learning objectives to enhance student agency, adopting a growth mindset, providing effective feedback, and the importance of sleep. Check back soon for Part 2!

Want to Learn More?

Learn more about how to slow and stop the COVID slide by watching Dr. Martha Burns' webinar, "Upending the COVID Slide with Neuroscience." Watch it on-demand here.

Further Reading:

"COVID-19 School Closures Could Have a Devastating Impact on Student Achievement." Beth Tarasawa, NWEA, April 9, 2020.

How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now on Amazon. Stanislas Dehaene, January 28, 2020.

"The Neuroscience behind Productive Struggle." Rishi Sriram, Edutopia, April 13, 2020.

A Proven Solution

Fast ForWord is an online reading and language solution that builds attention, fosters engagement, rewards progress and effort, and provides opportunities for productive struggle. Learn more about Fast ForWord by downloading a free info pack.

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